Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors. Say it fast, three times!
I have promised friends and listeners that the nuclear energy parade would, despite unimpressive performance in the first half, be back – with some new tricks, moves and even players. And here it is!
Nuclear power is again, the “safe! free! eternal energy source” – encore, une fois. So, I’m looking. I found this chunk of optimism selling a rain-making…er.. monorail… er… Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor – which apparently has no problems at all, and will power us to a Golden New Age of iPodness. Witness his sweaty glory:
That’s Kirk Sorensen, who looks like a nerdly Viking, and talks like a ‘rainmaker.’
But digging into the data, one finds that even the CIA factbook (wikipedia) has its niggling doubts – like, it’s a radioactive machine that produces radioactive waste, with little in the way of a working model, and a host of ‘challenging technical hurdles.’ (see “practically impossible” in dictionary). (And no, that’s not what that word means. It means pestering, persistent, lingering. And if Tupac can say it, so can I).
But, it also claims to be an improvement over other “breeder” reactors, which use a molten salt that can explode violently when mixed with air or water. Which is pretty sci-fi, I’ll grant you. Kind of, “Wow, that really got out of the lab?” And, yes, some of these have been built.
Here is a slightly more adult version of the sales job: Google Tech Talk Link. More adult, but not entirely honest. “Nuclear power has no CO2 footprint,” is the first lie. Not that I bother much with CO2, but building a nuke plant is like building a small city’s downtown. It do cost money, y’all. More importantly, it requires huge allotments of coal, oil, natural gas, concrete, steel, lead, other metals, and oh, right…radioactive material to be dug out of the ground by slaves in other countries who die horrible deaths. But, you know. It’s also ‘carbon free!’ say the cheerleaders.
Note, the Google Tech Talk above was given in 2008, and India has taken the baited hook. I mean, why built a thermal solar panel in a sun belt? Let’s be radioactive about it! [Breeding India] But around the world, most countries that have tried, have stopped their research programs. Or, “programmes,” as they say in London.
But Japan, always on the hunt for energy, built a ‘breeder’ reactor some time ago. Right on an earthquake zone. No, not that one! Yes, another one! Here’s a film about that.
So, we’re on our way to never having to worry about anything again. Oh, except… right. Back to the ‘limitations of the device.’ Let’s have a scratch. Here are a few of the problems, directly from the Government interns who write the Wikipedia:
- Mothballed technology. Only a few MSRs have actually been built; those experimental reactors having been constructed more than 40 years ago. This leads some technologists to say that it is difficult to critically assess the concept.
- Startup fuel. Unlike mined uranium, mined thorium does not have a fissile isotope. Thorium reactors breed fissile uranium-233 from thorium, but require a considerable amount of U-233 for the initial start up. Currently there is very little of this material available.
- Salts freezing.
- Loss of delayed neutrons.
- Waste management. There is also a need to manage the waste, which is still very radioactive, even though it is hazardous for a shorter period.Decommissioning costs are uncertain.
- Noble metal buildup.
- Limited graphite lifetime.
- Graphite causes positive reactivity feedback.
- The solubility for plutonium is limited.
- Potential proliferation risk from reprocessing.
- Proliferation risk from protactinium separation for some specific designs.
- Proliferation of Neptunium-237.
- Neutron poisoning and tritium production from lithium-6.Corrosion from tellurium.
- Radiation damage to nickel alloys.
- Long term fuel salt storage issues. If the fluoride fuel salts are stored in solid form over many decades, radiation can cause the release of corrosive fluorine gas, and uranium hexafluoride.
- Business model
- Development of the power cycle.
- Developing a large helium or supercritical carbon dioxide turbine is needed for the highest efficiency designs.
So, not the kind of thing you can put in your yard and make electron salad. But, look. It’s newish. Kind of. And I’ll be fair, dig in and try to unpuzzle the game, which is clearly afoot. Watson.
And remember, we’re talking about this because? No, there is no such thing as “peak oil! We’ll never run out! We’ve got enough fracked shite to last 1,000,000 years! So fill ‘er up!! That’s why we’re mining for radioactive material! Because it’s…F-U-N!” Ah-ha! ha! ho. ha. hum. Ahem.
Liam Scheff is the author of “Official Stories,” because “official stories exist to protect officials.”